Old rivalries resume in Asia
National pride will be a significant component in this week's AFC Champions League Matchday 3 with the fixtures throwing up some intriguing derbies between countries that have developed key rivalries over the years.
In East Asia, Korea Republic and China have long been football adversaries and that rivalry is set to continue this week with each nation's representative teams scheduled to lock horns. Inspired by the recent outstanding performances of the Socceroos, Newcastle Jets and Central Coast can be expected to raise their game, on the back of an improved showing on Matchday 2, as they challenge Japanese opponents in the shape of Nagoya Grampus and Kawasaki Frontale.
In the continent's West, the teams representing the United Arab Emirates may feel they have a score to settle with Saudi opponents after their national team last week crashed out of Asian qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ with a 3-2 defeat by Saudi Arabia. West Asia will also see a battle of regional giants as Uzbekistan duo Bunyodkor and Pakhtakor face off against Iranian foe Sepahan and Saba Battery with the Uzbeks looking to reverse the poor record of their national team against Iran.
The big match
Shanghai Shenhua (CHN)-Suwon Bluewings (KOR)
One of the only three teams alongside Al Ittihad and Gamba Osaka to maintain a perfect record in the campaign so far, Suwon Bluewings are favourites to top the group as well as strong candidates to win the tournament itself. An away victory will strengthen Bluewings' grip on the section while the home side would also likely claim top spot should they secure maximum points. Also targeting pole position is Kashima Antlers of Japan, who are aiming to claim their second consecutive win when they visit Singapore Armed Forces.
Bunyodkor (UZB) - Sepahan (IRN)
After gaining four points over two legs against Sepahan in last year's continental competition, Bunyodkor enter the rematch with a clear mental edge. Sepahan, however, can draw inspiration from their runners-up performance just two years ago. Their group has proved to be one of the toughest with all of the four team's level on three points making this encounter a crucial match-up with a chance to claim top spot on the line. Saudi debutants Ettifaq play hosts to Al Arabi of UAE in the knowledge that three points can consolidate their place in the section.
Al Jazira (UAE)-Al Ittihad (KSA)
Despite twice winning the tournament, Al Ittihad has notoriously choked against first-timers on previous occasions. They inexplicably lost to Syria's Al Karama 4-2 on aggregate in the quarter-final stage in 2006 before finishing behind Bunyodkor in the group phase last year. To keep their unblemished record intact this time, the Saudi giants will have to be wary of Al Jazira, who has shown they are more than capable of causing an upset by holding Esteghlal in their previous outing. At the same time, a 3-0 over Malavan in domestic competition came as a timely boost for bottom side Esteghlal of Iran ahead of their clash against Qatar's UMM-Salal.
Group A leaders Pakhtakor, the only team to have featured in each of the past six editions of the Asian showpiece, are expected to cement their leading place with an away win against Saba Battery, while Saudi's Al Hihal will be desperate to register their first win against Al Ahli of UAE. In Group B, a home win against Al Gharafa is likely to move Persepolis into pole position while Al Shabab will be hoping to top the section with three points against UAE hosts Sharjah.
Newcastle Jets have a massive task ahead of them if they are to upstage Japanese hosts Nagoya Grampus, while the other group match pits Korea's Ulsan Hyundai, who are without a point and in real danger of losing touch with the other teams, playing host to leaders Beijing Guoan. Playing in front of their adoring home fans, Central Coast will do whatever they can to surprise leaders Kawasaki Frontale while Chinese Tianjin Teda, boosted by their three opening wins in the local league, has set their sights on a first win against hosts Pohang Steelers.
Defending champions Gamba Osaka is expected to continue to fly high with a third win over Indonesian side Sriwijaya, with hosts Shandong Luneng and FC Seoul meeting in what could ultimately prove to be a battle for second spot in the group.
What they said
"The Socceroos were patient and kept at it when playing against Uzbekistan and that is what we will try to do when we travel to Japan. The national team are the role-models for us as to how to play in Asia," Gary van Egmond, Newcastle Jets head coach.
2009 AFC Champions League Matchday 3 fixtures:
Group A: Saba Battery (IRN)-Pakhtakor (UZB); Al Hilal (KSA)-Al Ahli (UAE)
Group B: Sharjah (UAE)-Al Shabab (KSA); Persepolis (IRN)-Al Gharafa (QAT)
Group C: UMM-Salal (QAT)-Esteghlal (IRN); Al Jazira (UAE)-Al Ittihad (KSA)
Group D: Ettifaq (KSA)-Al Arabi (UAE); Bunyodkor (UZB)-Sepahan (IRN)
Group E: Nagoya Grampus (JPN)-Newcastle Jets (AUS); Ulsan Hyundai (KOR)-Beijing Guoan (CHN)
Group F: Shandong Luneng (CHN)-FC Seoul (KOR); Gamba Osaka (JPN)-Sriwijaya (IDN)
Group G: Armed Forces (SIN)-Kashima Antlers (JPN); Shanghai Shenhua (CHN)-Suwon Bluewings (KOR)
Group H: Pohang Steelers (KOR)-Tianjin Teda (CHN); Central Coast (AUS)-Kawasaki Frontale (JPN)